Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"I'll Put the Kettle On"

I walked into the grand opening day of the cancer resource and support center and was greeted with a smile and those famous words, "I'll put the kettle on." Those words remind me of 4 years now in Caithness where a cuppa is essential for any visit of more than a few minutes. Oddly, it also reminds me of the cowboy movies I watched as a young girl in the balcony of the movie theatre on Saturday mornings. The expectant father was always sent to boil water. Did you ever see anyone use the water they boiled? I'm sure it was for a nice cuppa after the baby got there and the work was done.

In this case, I was having a cuppa to finish off a job where I had been actively on the sidelines, much like the expectant father. It was not my Serious Health Concern, so I won't mention that here. Suffice it to say that it was big and scary and my job was to wrangle an incomprehensible medical system into compliance and help the person whose Serious Health Concern it was get through it by appearing to be confident and in control whether I felt like that or not. In fact, the less I felt like it, the more I had to appear otherwise.

Last summer was lost to appointments and tests and treatments and eventual good news, but since then I had been getting back to normal, except I wasn't quite sure how to find normal again. Although I was not alone then or now and I am grateful to all the family and friends who supported me, I had pushed some of my concerns out of the way as best I could. So well that I could not get them out again even though summer was here again.

I discovered that I had pushed them so far down that I noticed they were still there only by the space they took up where something else should be--the point where a real laugh starts and that part of vision that governs whimsy. I was laughing, and whimsy was back in my life, but I noticed a hesitation, a cautiousness in both.

I was not sure when I walked into the center why I was there, but I was confident the reason would come out somehow. I chatted with people who knew what it was all about, which was somehow easier than talking with friends, even loving knowledgeable friends and family.

Over a cuppa and a home baked chocolate sponge, I loosened the last of the knots with which I had bound up my own fears. It was safe to let them run around unfettered in a room full of women who have faced their own fears. Next week I'll be back. I may need to talk some more or maybe I'll need to do some listening to someone who is still trying to find a place to put her own concerns. Either way, I'll have a cuppa and take my knitting.

Monday, May 26, 2008

An Open and Shut Case

Yesterday morning started with an early call about cattle loose on the road. In keeping with the record so far, it was another wild goose chase--if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor. We have to jump and go running just in case.

The just in case includes many possible scenarios-- a calf nudging open a gate, an animal leaping or charging through something, the herd spooked by a dog or a fox and running pell mell through or over things. Any gap in the fences or dykes can also be an invitation to a misadventure. It is even possible that the gates themselves disappear. It happened down south. With the price of scrap metal going up, it is another possibility to be included in the list of just in case scenarios.

Also possible is a gate left open.

I have not thought so much about gates since I tried to learn about computer logic, which meant looking at logical gates. And or Or. On or Off. Open or Shut. I could not generate enough interest in the flow of electrons to study those gates. I think my mind must be a rather coarse grained sieve--things as small as electrons slip through too easily.

Cattle, however, get my attention. This morning a quick look out the bedroom window has revealed the cattle are in the barley field. How they got there--a question of gates and fences--needs to be sorted, but for now they need to be out of there.

So instead of a cuppa coffee or checking emails I find myself standing in a barley field wondering how best to persuade a knot of edgy youngish cattle that they don't want to be there.

Fortunately it is dry, so cattle's hooves do not punch great holes in the fields, and the barley is young, so any plants trampled can recover themselves.

In between watching the cattle running almost to the gate and out and then getting spooked at the last minute and kicking up dust in the wrong direction, I look at the barley. It looks like dark green, longish blades of grass. Unassuming really, as plants go, but the finished product--the little golden kernels are probably more valuable now than their weight in gold. I step even more gingerly over them as I reflect on that.

As always in these cattel wrangling scenarios, I am the doer rather than the thinker, but I have spent enough time now watching cattle that I sometimes have ideas of my own. So I offer some suggestions about which gates to open and shut to lead cattle in or to keep them out. In this way, we manage to get some cattle corralled in what we call the boxing ring--an area we use for handling them in and out of the barn area. A few others make their way into a path between the barley field and paddocks near the house, usually reserved for cattle that need special attention. The grass there looks lush and green, so we open the gate. A few of the cattle--about half-- make their way from the road into the paddock. The other half bunch up and make their way back into the barley field.

With some discussion, we decide to move the bunch in the paddock next door--even though the dykes are not perfectly secure, so we can re open the gate to the paddock of green grass and then just leave it open in the hopes that the cattle will seize the opportunity of lush green grass and the company of their companions.

Having decided this, however, one last look over our shoulder suggests that maybe a little push would get them over this time. We give it one or two more rumbles up and down the field and then, as if they had it in mind all along anyway, they file through the gate and into the paddock. I close the gate behind them and then close the gates to the barley field and head in for coffee. Later we'll have to move them back where they belong, but for now the gates are open and shut in the right order.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bluebells, Cuckoo flowers, and Free Range Arts and Crafts

Under a benign sky, the bluebells have claimed a stake on the gardens and verges. It is also the season of the cuckoo flower, so named, I discovered, because it appears in April when the cuckoo arrives, or used to. At any rate, May is when it makes its present felt with its four-petaled, pink-whitey-purpley flowers. Bluebells and cuckooflowers are linked not just because they are both blooming now and are beautiful but also because they evoke powerful memories.

I am re-learning the names of flowers here as part of my acculturation. I walked down to the sea with my friend and her dog and my friend was delighted to discover the cuckoo flowers along the way to the sea. For her the cuckoo flowers and violets nestled into the grass were a reminder of her childhood summers spent here in Caithness.

For me, as I breathed in the fragrance of a stalk of bluebells, I was reminded of my daughter and a clarinet duet. She and a classmate played "The Bluebells of Scotland" on their clarinets. It was good remembering but made me a bit wistful all the same. She is too far away.

I have been working hard on my writing, including dithering about how or whether to accept a writing assignment. Mostly I have been avoiding a decision on it all the while letting it rumble around in the back of my mind.

For two days I set all such thoughts aside and joined artists for two days of creativity at Castle Hill Heritage Centre. Having pinned all my angst on my writing, I was free to be creative and un-intimidated by being around real artists.

Because there was no formal workshop, no constraints imposed by funding, or any formal agenda, I dubbed the weekend free range arts and crafts.

I came with a tool box full of projects needing just a bit of this or that to finish them. I sat cheerful as a bug watching the others with their easels and their sketchbooks while I pottered with strings and papers and beads and such.

I took my camera for a walk and took some photos for ideas for other projects and enjoyed sitting in the sun in good company. The second day I learned about silk painting from one of the artists and hand spinning from another, so I came home with a little more knowledge and a great deal more enthusiasm for all the other tasks at hand. I also discovered that I had come up with a decision about the writing project, too.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Lessons from The Heart of Darkness

I listened to a program on BBC this morning as I lay in bed waiting for the fog to burn off and reveal whether it was a gardening day or an inside chores day. The program profiled soldiers who had been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan to assess whether the convenant between government and soldiers, a promise to look after them, was being kept. As with so many programs, it was nominally balanced with some saying yes; some saying no, but left the listener with a lingering sense of failure: a diffuse failure so that no one could be blamed directly.

The usual suspects were all lined up for insightful sound byte interviews: Ministry of Defence, National Health Service, the administration that got us into the war, which presumably includes the Americans though they were not evident in this program, and the administration that would like to be in power, but, because they weren't, can claim that they are not responsible for sending our troops to Iraq.

America was dragged into the conversation in a way that I find sadly amusing now. It was suggested that wounded soldiers might be better served in separate military hospitals "such as they have in America." The veterans hospitals in America have been sadly underfunded for years. Most soldiers avoided them if at all possible. The media and anecdotal information from friends have offered up the same sad testimonies of soldiers ill-served by the insitutions meant to protect them over there as soldiers face here. Hence, my sadness in hearing them held up as a model.

My amusement comes in recognizing one of two familiar themes in the way that America is represented. On the one hand, America is often cited as an example of how to do things better, as if the diaspora or the brain drain of the UK continues to look westward to this shining examplar of big, new, and bold.

On the other hand, America shows up almost as often in the press or in conversations as a bloated, greedy, isolated, self-absorbed continent blundering through the world and taking its allies down with it.

Perhaps I have become so cynical because I am old enough now to have seen too many wars, or arguably, too many choreographed media presentations that dance around the hard questions by which we really live. I don't know how many wars is too many. I accept the theoretical concept of a just war, and I am personally much too tempestuous to embrace pacifism except as an admirable quality. Thus, stuck between too many wars and the inevitability of more, I try to make sense of the covenant between a government who asks its citizens to die for a cause that another administration will change its mind about.

This covenant, the simple promise that the soldier will be adequately compensated for his or her loss or disability, seems at the heart of what a government should do. If the government cannot do this, then it seems to me to fail at the most fundamental level. It fails not only its soldiers and their families but also its reason for existence.

The failure to come to grips with this fundamental reason for its existence is being obscured by more and more social legislation: programs to help us eat properly--with punishments for deviating from their plans; programs to educate our children and how to measure how carefully they are meeting government-mandated targets; targets now for children up to the age of 5, requiring weekly reports with day by day snapshots as documentary evidence. Ironically, parents or care givers are also subject to other government requirements about when it is permissible to photograph children.

The government and the media have been filled with more and more detail--changing cannabis from Class B to Class C; raising or lowering drinking ages or driving ages or the number of children in a classroom. The idea has been nagging at me for some time that this social legislation is not only a smokescreen for government's failure to meet its express purpose but also, and more worryingly I think, the result of a political theoretical bankruptcy.

Similarly, I think journalists are struggling to see through the topical issues to the larger questions--what is the role of government? In our post modern, global economy what should that look like? This morning's program touched ever so gently on a central question behind the covenant. Can we keep pace emotionally, morally, financially with the improvements in medical technology that save lives at the price of broken human beings? Social policy and the ethics of health care issues often lag behind the technology.

One of the ways to enrich our public discourse is to look at fiction. Again, we need to look more broadly than Oprah's latest selection or formulaic novels that fill all the shelves in the charity shops. I would place Heart of Darkness at the top of the list for today's conundra. Fiction can take us into questions that journalism cannot. If you know this book only by its latter day interpretation in the film "Apocalypse Now," you owe it to yourself to read it. It is one of few books that I have read more than once. It is a book so well crafted that my admiration for it even survived a too close analysis of it in graduate school. It is not a comfortable book, but we are not living in comfortable times and we do not have comfortable questions in front of us.

An important lesson from Heart of Darkness is that none of us is exempt from culpability for exploitation. That's one of the hard questions left unasked. If we want our government to keep its covenant with its soldiers--and I wholeheartedly agree that we should--then what sacrifices are we willing to make to ensure that happens?

Monday, May 12, 2008

A May Interlude

I like
Frilly orange edges
On dark purple centers

Blue misted silhouettes of hills
Dark blue lochans
In brown-umber hills
Dotted with sheep

Ocean tumbled rocks
rounded to the curve of your hand
blue brown purple grey, striped like Easter eggs
or wrinkled with seasons of water and dust

Cattle on the hill at twilight
Dancing in the rain
The ocean mixed with my own heartbeat in my ears

sitting in the golden light
watching it all.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Walk with Geologists

Some days even during the busy seasons, the farm is quiet, but now that it is summer we will get folks knocking at the back door with unusual requests. I was, thus, intrigued but not surprised when my husband announced that some geologists had asked to walk through our farm down to the beach to look at the rocks. We met them later in the Pentland Hotel and learned more about their interest in the rocks. They are staff geologists currently looking at rocks like ours in Shetland. Two big differences between our rocks and those in Shetland: their rocks may have oil and their rocks are under about 2 kilometers of sea and other rocks. So our rocks, like so much of Scotland, are beautiful and accessible but not easily converted into an income.

I confessed to having nearly failed freshman geology back in Bloomington, Indiana where everything is limestone anyway. I added, however, that I had recently picked up in the library a biography of the man responsible for making geology a science in the United Kingdom (The Map that Changed the World: The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science, Simon Westchester). Apparently that was enough to tip the scales in my favor, and the geologists were kind enough to invite us to tag along.

The first revelation of the day was that what I had formerly thought of as a sandy beach was in reality an aeolian sand bed. I stepped a bit more lightly on the venerable grains now having been properly introduced.

The cliff face, which I could recognize at least as sedimentary rock (We all remember the three classifications: sedimentary, metamorhpic and igneous, right? from those little cigar-box collections of rocks around the world or was I more of rock-geek than average?) From the geologists I was able to learn the cliff face was more specifically, Devonian sandstone. "Devonian" means it measures its tenure in the hundreds of millions of years. The stripes are the result of drying and refilling a freshwater lake over millions and millions of years.
After having met the Devonian sandstone and had my chronometer set back to register in millions of years, I was introduced to this unassuming red rock. The colour and texture seemed to stand out from others on the beach, so I asked one of the geologists. He explained that it is a conglomerate. Underneath the mottled layers laid down on top is granite. This small boulder is the grandfather of the Devonian sandstone. It is about 2 billion years old. My chronometer simply could not register to that scale. I dubbed him Grandfather Rock although I doubt that this title makes much difference to him.

I also learned a bit about the controversies around sineresis--the cracks and the filling in some of the rocks that give them a wrinkled surface. As an amateur, I can admire them without worrying about the niceties of process. I tucked a particularly beautiful example of a flat wrinkled rock under my arm --my pockets were already full of the tide-bounced, wave jumbled rocks that are so perfectly rounded that they demand to be picked up.

As the geologists gathered to study fractures in terms that my lay brain could not follow, I wandered among the rocks simply admiring them. I came across this beauty and dubbed her Grandmother Rock. I think she is considerably younger than Grandfather, but what is a few million years to a rock?

Reading William Smith's biography reminded me of the critical role that geology in particular played in overthrowing the idea that the creation of the earth and everything in it was a matter of faith only and that even to inquire into such things as the ages of rocks was heresy.

Simon Winchester recalled for me the personal attacks that those who chose to explore the world and to hypothesize about their place in it had had to endure. William Smith suffered not only the attacks against his science but also the fact that he was a self-educated amateur. He challenged both class and faith.

Having sauntered along the brae and on the beach with the geologists I shared the conviction that the more we know about something the more likely we are to be awed by it. I have always struggled to understand the idea that using our God given intellect could ever be construed as heresy. Having grown up in Indiana which is known for its conservatism and "Bible-belt" dogmatisim, I have friends who have a very different perspective. I have learned to keep the friendship by steering clear of that conundrum. I personally find it a gift to know that Grandfather Rock, sitting peacefully on his aeolian sand bed, has been around for 2 billion years and counting. For me such gifts are not just intellectual treats. They are a reminder of just how magnificent a world it is over which we have been given stewardship.

I walked down to the beach a few days after this visit. The tides had altered the rocks on the beach. I was able to see Grandfather Rock although not easily able to get there again--a line of heavy sea weed made walking too treacherous. There was no sign of Grandmother Rock. She may be back underwater or rolled further up on the shore and hidden among the cliff edge. Time operates on the aeolian sand bed in both macro and micro scale. Grandmother Rock may be back again but in her own time.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

In the Land of the Impossible

Social barriers are not usually as manifest as the plexiglass barrier between the audience and the working area of Courtroom 1. The door through which Court Officials enter is less than two feet or a universe away from the Public Access, depending on how you measure such things.

Friendship, curiosity and a sense of justice that just won't mellow away even as I grow older led me into Sheriff's Court. A friend had been victimized and the perpetrator was trying to wriggle out of it. Wriggling out of things is something that I never learned or learned to like in others. Fortunately for me, most of the time I felt tempted to be a little smaller than I should have been, I had good friends to remind that wriggling is inappropriate for a biped.

The signs on the wall and the furniture inside the room are standard institutional--matter of fact, if a bit obscure still for my American English. After a moment's hesitation I sussed that "First floor" meant "Second floor" to an American and hesitated only briefly before opening the door to Public Courtroom 1.

The court room is small. The seats for the audience are as hard and narrow as church pews. Perhaps that is the first step in becoming a penitent--merely to sit here. The Plexiglass shield is the only security I have seen since entering the grey Victorian ediface that reeks of Dickens novels to my mind.

Oddly, although the plexiglass extends the full length of the wooden wall that acts as divider between court and audience, the wall does not divide the two halves. Members of the audience, or so I had thought when I entered and took a seat, include the accused on the docket that day. It was more like church than I had thought. When the clerk called their names, the accused slipped through a gap between the plexiglass-covered wooden railing and down a few steps into a larger but probably not more comfortable seat below, directly opposite the judge.

The gap in the plexiglass is more a semi-permeable membrane than a permanent barrier. All but one of the accused slipped into the gap and back out again, at least for now. Even the one in handcuffs has another court date. I pulled out my knitting. My consolation my social cover. It is usually inoffensive enough, but the clerk, spying my knitting, told me to put it down out of sight because it was "inappropriate in a court room." I thought it odd first that knitting should be inappropriate in a courtroom--Mr. Dickens has done knitters a grievous injustice with his characterization of the bloodthirsty knitter in A Tale of Two Cities. Secondly, I thought it odd that she did not tell me to stop it, but only to put it out of sight.

I apologized, finished the row and put it away. The young woman constable in the witness box laughed and said, "If not I might have been the first to be in contempt of court for knitting." We all laughed. The plexiglass provided no barrier for that.

Without my knitting to occupy me, my eyes wander. On either side of the audience section of the courtroom are non-institutional signs--carefully printed on a laser printer with dark type to look official and threatening but the language belies their threat: Anyone caught damaging court furnishings will be prosecuted." The emphasis on caught is mine, of course. I often re-write public signs--a habit of long years as tech writer, information analyst, busybody--whichever title you prefer, but this rewriting is more social criticism. I look at the railings in front of me--a mass of old faint scars on top, where the carving would have been more visible, but just below sight--where the clerk wanted my knitting safely confined out of sight is a forest of vulgarity and egotism. Bathroom graffitti usually has some wit about it. Surely someone sitting her must have had a poem, a joke, something worth leaving behind. I search in vain even after we rise to let the judge come back and conduct the business of the court.

Names are scribed in often. Some with dates attached. Court dates? Birth dates of babies soon to be left behind as they go through the plexiglass gap and don't come back. The only poem is a simple "No dope No hope."

A young woman who is given some latitude for whatever offense she committed (I have to listen hard to some accents still and so it is easy to let conversations slide by half heard.) promises under the gaze of the judge to be good before her next court date. As soon as the judge has left she grows impatient waiting for her official letters. She becomes so agitated that the clerk asks the constable to calm her down. He does so in the easy way of a large man with a gentle heart. He rises to his full heart, looks her up and down and as soon as she realizes how foolish she has been, she sits, complacent only for the time being. The constable tries talking to her. I see her face with the arrogance only a misguided adolescent can have. As soon as she gets her letters, she flounces at the door, a few defiant words over her shoulder. I have a sad sick feeling that she will be back perhaps even before her scheduled court date.

I ralize that I am in the middle of a sea of impossibilities. The Other Side cannot send justice through the tiny gap in the wall fast enough to stem the tide and that knowledge gnaws at them and shapes them in different ways. The clerk defines her world as the hemisphere of circumspect behavior that can be seen within the court room. She looks after the judge; she visits his private chambers. She is firmly entrenched on the other side of the wall. That is her world and she runs it well.

The constables live in both worlds. They know the crooks and the real crooks. In the hallways they tell my friend about the things they know but were not asked in court or about the folks not as brave as she was to go into the court and make visible that which some would keep secret, out of sight.

I have had my day in court and it is enough. A little justice was dispensed that day but I will be glad never to have to go back into that sea of impossibilities.